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COVID-19 Continues Rampage Through Pennsylvania State Prisons

The week before those two outbreaks, SCI Camp Hill in Lower Allen Township reported 208 new cases. That sent its total caseload rocketing to nearly 400, according to John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents some 11,000 employees of the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC).

The news follows grim statistics from January 2021, when 27 prisoners and two staffers at state prisons died of the disease. DOC, which held 39,838 prisoners at the end if February 2021, had lost 91 inmates and staffers to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Infectious disease experts agree that a prison, where individuals live in cramped quarters, using bathrooms, dining halls, recreation areas and phone rooms that may not have been disinfected, are potential hot spots for the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease.

Pennsylvania’s DOC, like prison officials in New York, Illinois, and other states, imposed stringent lockdowns to slow the introduction of the disease from visitors. But those lockdowns did not help prisoners and prison staff, who had no way to escape the full effects of the pandemic. 

Prisoner advocates argue that Governor Tom Wolf and Corrections Director John Wetzel should use all available options to stem the tide, encouraging them to substantially reduce the state’s prison population to lower density and improve “social distancing.” 

But Pennsylvania law, unlike the federal system, gives its chief executive sole power to grant reprieves and not commutations or pardons, which must first be reviewed and recommended by a Board of Pardons. The governor’s reprieves merely pause a sentence, after which the prisoner must return to serve out the remainder of his term.

An April 2020 proposal to grant reprieves to as many as 1,200 non-violent elderly and infirm prisoners actually helped only 159 of them — none since the spring, despite the steady rise in fatalities. Wetzel defended the governor, saying that Wolf “is not interested in reprieving more people given the current construct,” wherein the time a prisoner spends out of prison does not count against his sentence, a process Wetzel said was “unfair.” A bill to introduce a medical parole, which failed in the last session, was re-introduced in the state legislature.

Although Wolf’s office said some prisoners had “not to participate” in the reprieve program, some of the prisoners identified had not even been advised that they were under consideration.

The paucity of releases has also shone an unwelcome spotlight on other deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s dealing with COVID-19. Although the state had reduced its prisoner count by 6,500 as a result of sentence completions — also accepting 44 percent fewer intakes due to court closures — there are still problems with staff compliance with federal Center for Disease Control guidelines for disease prevention.

Pennsylvania’s DOC does not require prison staff to undergo regular testing, which provides a portal for the virus to enter the prison system and then return to the surrounding community. The department’s COVID-19 “dashboard” has also come under criticism for inconsistencies and inaccuracies in its data collection techniques.

DOC has also been severely criticized for a lack of transparency in keeping prisoners’ family members advised about the health of their incarcerated family members. SCI-Camp Hill prisoner Antone Wilson, 71, spent over a month hospitalized with the disease in early 2021, yet his family did not find out until after the fact, according to his niece, January Payne.

“I understand inmates are repaying their debts to society,” she tweeted on March 11, 2021. “But I expect inmates to be treated with dignity & respect.”

She had also been waiting to find out when her uncle may get vaccinated against the disease. DOC began vaccinating prisoners in three facilities in February 2021. Inmates in the state’s other 20 prisons are considered “older and medically frail,” confounding prisoner advocate Claire Shubik-Richards with the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

“If you care about your own personal safety and the safety of your family and the safety of the people in your community to be virus free, you really want congregate care settings to stop spreading the virus,” she said.

But the vaccination effort also offended Eckenrode, who wondered how prisoners could “cut in line” ahead of guards in his union.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous and I can’t even put words to it,” he said.

An especially controversial element of the vaccination program is an offer of $25 cash payments to incentivize prisoners to take the vaccine. DOC says the money comes from an inmate general welfare fund that is not funded by taxpayers. 


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